Editor's Note: In this series, we talk beer with brewers and brewery owners from around the country. This week, we're happy to welcome Justin McCarthy, the head brewer at Magic Hat.
Name: Justin McCarthy
Location: South Burlington, VT
Occupation: Head Brewer, Magic Hat Brewing Company
How did you get interested in brewing? Tell us a bit about your career path.
We love it. And you've voted. See which is the best American beer city.
I never had any aspiration to be a brewer or even work with beer. I started at Magic Hat at the ripe old age of 19. I was simply looking for employment—I had just moved to Burlington and was actively seeking a paycheck.
I had applied to many different businesses, from restaurants to a flower shop. I returned home one afternoon and was given a message from my roommate that "John at Magic Hat called and asked me to come in for an interview." I wrote down the address and planned on an interview the following morning. The address was different than where I knew the brewery to be but I figured the offices must be off site. After arriving at the interview, I began filling out paperwork. Something seemed wrong so I asked the gentleman at the front desk about the position for which I was applying.
He responded by explaining they sold vacuums door to door.
I then went to the brewery where I asked for John. John came out of the back and explained that he never called me, but that he did in fact have an opening. He showed me the bottling line where the crew was hand packing cases and loading bottles. I confirmed that I could handle the job and lo and behold my brewing career began—by accident.
Magic Hat has always been filled with great people who wanted to share their knowledge and passion for beer. I was able to ask questions and my interest was piqued. I realized that beer was not only fun for obvious reasons, but also because of the science and history behind it. After seeing the brewery in action, I was hooked. It helped that the brewery was a small close knit group that liked to have fun and enjoy life.
I spent two years working on the bottling line which culminated in learning to operate the filler and labeler. I volunteered for other jobs in the brewery like washing kegs. Eventually, it translated into one shift a week in the fermentation room. After two years, I transitioned full time to the cellar, and I was also trained to operate the DE (diatomaceous earth) filter and to transfer beer.
Shortly after joining the brew staff, I was given the ultimate opportunity: to learn to brew. I spent the next year brewing on various shifts as well as working in the cellar. At this point, I was 23 and I had an opportunity to travel cross country in a used RV with some good friends. I spent the next year and a half traveling and ski bumming in Montana. After a winter in Montana, we set out for Oregon where I secured a job at Rogue Ales.
I spent the following 6 months operating their bottling line as well as the DE filter. But I missed Vermont and decided to return. Upon my return, I would stop by the brewery from time to time to say hello and share some beers. The following spring I received a call to swing by the brewery; they had to ask me something. I stopped by to discover they wanted to offer me my job back. It didn't take too much time to say yes. In 2009, I was promoted to lead brewer and became responsible for day to day brew house operations. In the fall of 2010, I was promoted to head brewer and became responsible for all aspects of the brewing process.
How has the beer industry changed since you started out?
What I have seen is an increased attention to quality. In the mid to late 1990s many people were making beer, but it wasn't all good. This turned off many potential consumers. Today [high quality] is absolutely necessary because the consumer is much more beer educated. More and more people are developing a palate and a passion for better beer. Having an educated customer base allows a brewer to experiment in ways that isn't possible if the consumer doesn't "get it."
One of the more interesting changes has more to do with people's tastes and palates. In the early 2000s, it seemed that beers pushed the limit at 50 to 60 IBUs. Anything above that was seen and thought of as almost undrinkable. Today a 50 IBU beer is considered an easygoing pale ale. This can be troublesome at times because people will often overlook a well made beer with less shock value for the 1000 IBU monster of a beer. Don't get me wrong, I love my IPAs, but some of the best beers are on the tamer side of the analytical spectrum.
From a business perspective, the changes to the raw material markets create a much different environment for brewers. The hop "crisis" several years ago showed us that we needed a more sustainable model for our agricultural products. Contracts needed to be signed and arranged prior to growing seasons to ensure everyone got a fair shake from a price perspective. This situation is also being seen in the barley markets. As more land is used for crops that produce larger yields and higher margins, brewers and malt houses must provide assurances to farmers that their crops will provide for their families and farms.
Who are your beer heroes?
Michael Jackson: I watched his Beer Hunter video series shortly after starting at Magic Hat. His knowledge of world breweries was beyond comparison.
Fritz Maytag: I was impressed by his desire to save this little brewery because he liked to drink the beer. The story of Anchor Christmas Ale as presented by Michael Jackson and Fritz Maytag will inspire anyone to brew a batch of beer.
Greg Noonan: I didn't know Greg personally, but he made it possible for all of us who brew beer in Vermont. Without his work, Vermont wouldn't be able to boast the most breweries per capita. Greg's book New Brewing Lager Beer was the first brewing book I ever read. Heady stuff for a novice brewer with no true science background other than high school chemistry and a couple of college classes.
Todd Haire: He was brewmaster at Magic Hat for many years. I owe him a lot for teaching me about beer.
What is a regular day like for you at Magic Hat?
Upon arrival at work, I will check my e-mail, then make the rounds. I will check in with the brewer on shift to see how the overnight brews went and receive an update on the schedule. At this point, I may help troubleshoot an issue or I will continue on to the fermentation room. Here I am monitoring the progress of our fermentation and check to see which tanks are ready for transfer or cooling. Then I hit the cellar for a schedule check. I will also take a look at the previous night's packaging and filtering numbers to be sure we are accomplishing our schedule goals. This is also a good time to visit with people and shoot the breeze a bit.
I'll also wander around the cellar to determine what may need cleaning or fixing. This may also be a time to sample the previous night's filter run or the current day's bottles. After making the rounds, i usually head back to the computer for a bit before our 9 a.m. check in.
At 9, the brewery manager will run down the day's priorities as well as discuss any issues that we can foresee. From there, I may check inventory numbers, payroll, or the newest recipe in development. I will review quality checks imputed by our lab. I may also use this time to research new beer ideas or raw materials. It can also be spent fulfilling requests from the marketing and sales team for information on our beers.
At 11 a.m., I head to our taste panel where we sample our brewing water as well as all packaged product from the most recent packaging runs. We will also taste aged product to determine its longevity. Then I make a round through the cellar to check in on how the day is progressing. After lunch, I can be found in a meeting, on a conference call, or working at my computer or on the floor. Each day consists of similar routines, but each day presents its own challenges.
Can you tell us a little about the Humdinger series and 'Over the Pils'?
The Humdinger Series is a way for us as brewers to experiment with some bigger styles, like an imperial pilsner. The idea behind Over the Pils was to create a bigger, bolder, stronger version of the traditional pilsner style beers of Germany and the Czech Republic. We wanted it to possess all the great qualities of this fantastic style but with a little more oomph!
Pilsners are known for their clean malt body and smooth crisp finish with the perfect amount of hops to be flavorful and balanced. We accomplished this in Over the Pils by utilizing pilsner malt and a combination of Apollo, Brewer's Gold and Crystal hops. The pilsner malt provides the smooth malty mouthfeel and just a hint of sweetness. The blend of hops lends floral aromas and flavors to this beer. The beer was fermented very slowly at cold temperatures to ensure a smooth, clean and crisp flavor.
What do you drink when you're not drinking Magic Hat?
Every beer has a time and a place. I enjoy Sierra Nevada beer especially the Torpedo, the Pale Ale and Celebration. Victory Fest Beer is one of the best beers in the world. Allagash is making some great beers right now. Cantillon speaks for itself. I have been enjoying Vermont Pub and Brewery's experimental beers over the past year. Gabe Fletcher at Anchorage Brewing is creating some wonderful barrel aged beers. Pretty much anything brewed in Vermont. The beer scene in Vermont is exploding with tons of great beers made right here.